What Is Cellulite and How Do I Make It Go Away?

Find out what causes cellulite, what it looks like and how to make it go away

Cellulite definition
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Cellulite is a cosmetic, localized skin condition that causes a dimpled appearance on the surface of the skin. The bumpy "orange peel" texture is a combination of expanding fat cells that bunch up underneath the skin and fibrous bands (septa) that run perpendicular to the surface of the skin. Enlarged fat cells create small bulges while the tight septa cause puckering. In medical settings, cellulite may be called edematous fibrosclerotic panniculopathy, gynoid lipodystrophy or adiposis edematosa.

What Is Cellulite?

Cellulite is not a disease, but rather a cosmetic skin condition that is very common, especially among women. The dimply skin syndrome generally affects certain areas of the abdomen, hips, legs and buttocks.  Many women complain of cellulite on the backs of the thighs. 

Even though almost all women will get cellulite somewhere on their bodies, women are often embarrassed by the cottage cheesey-like skin texture and try to get rid of cellulite or reduce its appearance. So why are we embarrassed if almost everyone has it? In one study, top cellulite researchers said that photoshopped media images "deceive the public" about how common this condition really is, which leads us to feel bad about it. 

What Does Cellulite Look Like?

Most women know what cellulite looks like on the outside. The condition is often compared to the peel of an orange because cellulite has the same bumpy or dimpled appearance.

The dimples may be small and scattered or you may notice a larger indentation on the buttocks or back of the thighs.

So what does cellulite look like on the inside? You might imagine cellulite as a bunch of tiny fat-filled balloons caught between layers of tissue that are connected by large rubber bands.

Underneath the top layers of your skin (the epidermis and dermis) fat cells store excess energy. Small bands of connective tissue run vertically between these fat cells and connect the top layers of skin to deeper tissue in your body. The bands create chambers or mini pockets where normal-sized fat cells have plenty of room to reside.

But when fat cells expand, the chambers get more crowded and begin to bulge, creating a small bump on the top of the skin. The bands, however, remain tethered to deeper tissue and this creates a "valley" appearance on the top of the skin. The combination of bulges and valleys on the top of the skin creates dimpling that we call cellulite.

In some clinical settings the look of your cellulite may be graded. There are three grades of cellulite appearance.

Cellulite Grades

  • Grade 1 cellulite: You have smooth skin while laying down and standing up.
  • Grade 2 cellulite:  You have smooth skin while laying down, but some dimpling appears while standing.
  • Grade 3 cellulite: Dimpling appears while you are standing and laying down

    What Causes Cellulite?

    So why do we get "cottage cheese" or "orange peel" thighs? There is no single answer. The possible causes of cellulite include hormonal changes, genetics, weight gain or weight loss, a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle or smoking. Some even say that tight clothing and frequent sitting can cause cellulite.

    But most active healthy women will report that even with a good diet and exercise program, cellulite can occur. The way fat is distributed on your body may predispose you to cellulite and your genes may cause dimply thighs as well. Since so many different factors can cause cellulite, almost all women will get it at some time on some part of their body.

    Who Is Likely to Get Cellulite?

    By most estimates, 80-90% of women will get cellulite at some point after puberty. The condition gets more common as we get older. As women age, the skin gets thinner and looser, so cellulite is more likely to show. Cellulite is also more likely to show on lighter skinned women.

    Men can get cellulite as well, but it is less common. Researchers think men have a slightly different structure underneath their skin that allows less cellulite to occur.  But some men still get the dimply-skin condition.

    Can Weight Loss Prevent Cellulite?

    An active lifestyle and healthy diet may help you to minimize the appearance of cellulite. But it may not prevent cellulite completely. In addition, if you maintain a healthy body weight, you may be able to minimize the severity of dimpling that shows up on your thighs or abdomen. Muscle toning exercises for the thighs and belly may also help to shape the areas where cellulite appears, making it less noticeable.

    If you are overweight, losing weight may help, but not always. In some people, weight loss helps to prevent or minimize the appearance of cellulite. But in others, losing weight can actually cause the condition to become more noticeable. Loose skin, which often happens after significant weight loss, can allow the appearance of cellulite to become more noticeable.

    Of course, fear of cellulite shouldn't factor into your decision to reach a healthy weight. Not everyone who loses weight will end up with cellulite. But if you have cellulite before you slim down, there is no guarantee that weight loss will make it disappear.

    There are a few things, however, that may help prevent cellulite. Taking care of your skin is helpful to reduce the appearance of cellulite. Most experts also recommend that you quit smoking, eat foods that are full of healthy nutrients, and use sunscreen properly to help keep skin smoother, tighter and more elastic. Tighter skin can help to reduce the appearance of cellulite.

    Can You Get Rid of Cellulite?

    Unfortunately, there is no way to permanently remove all of the cellulite on the backs of your thighs, your tummy or your butt. There are ways to make it less noticeable and there are ways to get rid of some of the cottage cheese appearance, but there is no "cure" for cellulite. Dermatologists and plastic surgeons who treat the skin condition say that it is important to develop reasonable expectations when you investigate different cellulite treatments. 

    If you visit a medispa, a doctor’s office or salon and they tell you that they can completely remove cellulite, this may be a good reason to move on. You’re likely to be disappointed with the result, say the experts. In addition, even if you get a good result from a cellulite removal method, it doesn’t stop the natural processes that cause cellulite in the first place. So new cellulite can develop.

    “Cellulite treatments don’t stop the aging process,” says Amanda Sanzone, a licensed medical aesthetician who administers cellulite treatments in New York City. Sanzone works alongside Dr. Matthew Schulman, a board-certified plastic surgeon. She says that their office is very careful to counsel patients about what to expect. In general, we tell patients to expect a 40-50% improvement in cellulite with the treatments that we offer. But results will depend on your commitment to healthy eating, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.  

    Dr. Z. Paul Lorenc agrees. Lorenc is also a New York City board-certified plastic surgeon who provides several different treatments for cellulite. He says that he considers it his job to help patients develop realistic expectations and balance some of the misinformation on the internet.  There is no perfect treatment for cellulite,” he says. “If there was, all of the other treatments would go away.”  And he adds that he will turn away patients if he doesn’t feel that he can give them a good result.

    But he says that some of the current cellulite removal procedures can provide a benefit if they are used as part of a complete program of healthy living. “There is a positive psychological component to these procedures and we see it on our patients' bodies and on their faces.”  Other physicians point out the skin tightening and cellulite treatments can even boost your weight loss program by improving your self-confidence and motivation.

    The Best Cellulite Treatments

    So how do you find the best cellulite treatment for your thighs, your belly or your butt? Very few cellulite treatments work as well as you want them to. "Creams and home treatments don't work," says Dr. Lorenc.  Certain medical treatments have been FDA-approved to address the appearance of cellulite, but most of them are not permanent solutions.

    To learn more about the differences between cellulite treatments and to pick the one that's right for your body (and your budget) check out my guide How to Get Rid Of Cellulite: The Best and Worst Treatments.  But keep in mind that no treatment can get rid of cellulite for good. So for many women, the best cellulite treatment may be a sense of humor and a healthy dose of self-acceptance. 


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